Sunday, July 6, 2014


153. Response to authoritarianism

Western democracies show an inability to restrain uninhibited rampage of markets, excesses of cupidity, extremes of inequality in income and wealth, the political power of money, a culture of narcissism, and self-indulgent populism. This bolsters the self-confidence and acceptance of authoritarian forms of government across the world, presenting themselves as ‘bulwarks against Western individualism’, as it was recently called in the New York Review of Books[1]

In this blog I proposed ‘debatable ethics’ (item 118). That is relativist, not in the extreme sense that any ethic is as good as any other, but in the sense that it is pluralist. I argued that any system of ethical values and moral guidelines or rules requires debate that allows for arguments from different dimensions of the good life, in an Aristotelian virtue ethics. Does this relativism allow for authoritarianism, with ‘growth without democracy and progress without freedom’[2]?

Ethical debate requires open access to the debate, which requires freedom of participation and expression. It also requires truthfulness and fulfilling commitments. That much would still remain of a universal ethic.

This universalism is limited, however, in the recognition that the debate will lead to different ethical/moral systems, depending on different views concerning different dimensions of the good life, or virtues, which are not necessarily commensurable and whose priority, form and viability depend on circumstances of culture, history, education and economy.

Moderate relativism, or pluralism, in ethics is needed to engender an attitude of modesty and restraint in foreign policy, not to impose one’s own view by force, as Obama now seems to try to establish. Instead, one should try to prove the attractiveness of one’s view, in competition with other views, in the flourishing of one’s own society.

Democracy has the potential of resilience against error and excess, as discussed in item 127 of this blog, as a form of ‘imperfection on the move’, in contrast with the dreams of perfection by authoritarian design that is sooner or later bound to fall into disastrous collapse.

Democracy should now prove its ability to do this, to redress its errors, in a drastic revision of its current state of on the one hand an overreach of the welfare state and bureaucratic design, and on the other hand excesses of market ideology and inequalities of power, income and wealth. Conservatives and progressives should be able to find each other in this. 

If democracy fails in this it will itself fall into disastrous collapse and will show itself to be no better than authoritarianism.

I propose that all this requires an answer to current excesses of individualism, called ‘singularity’ in item 151 of this blog, and that part of that answer lies in the new type of solidarity proposed in item 152. This should restore a sense of reciprocity, collaboration and civic responsibility, with a renewed sense of justice. Will that be convincing enough to disarm authoritarianism?

[1] In an article by Michael Ignatieff, NYRB vol. 61, no. 12, p. 53
[2] the same reference.